May 18, 2022

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Is It COVID-19 or Just a Cold? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

Not only are we seeing yet another rise in COVID-19 cases, thanks in part to the omicron variant, but we’re also now seeing flu cases ticking upward. Oh, and it’s cold season, of course. So if you’re feeling congested and tired, it might be tough to figure out which one of these illnesses you’ve got.

While flu cases are just beginning to increase, COVID-19 cases are “accelerating dramatically,” Dr. John Torres, NBC News senior medical correspondent, told TODAY.

“So if you start getting sick, essentially you have to assume it’s COVID unless proven otherwise,” he explained. “And by that I mean make sure you isolate yourself (and) get a test to make sure it’s not COVID.” If you test negative, at that point you can start to consider the cold or flu, but you should assume it’s COVID-19 until then.

“You notice there’s a lot of overlap in those symptoms, and that’s why it can be so hard to tell the difference between all of them,” Torres said. “But there are a few differences.”

Here’s what to look out for:

Common cold symptoms

With a cold, symptoms tend to build up over a few days, Torres said:

  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Sore throat.
  • Cough.
  • Congestion.

Common flu symptoms

Unlike with the common cold or COVID-19, flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly and can feel severe. “The flu hits you right away,” Torres explained. “If you’ve ever had the flu, you know you get to a point where you can’t get out of bed.”

Here is what to look out for:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Body aches.
  • Headaches.

General COVID-19 symptoms

“With the previous COVID variants, including delta, the main sign was that lots of taste or smell,” Torres said. In addition to that telltale sign, people experienced other cold- and flu-like symptoms.

  • Headache.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny nose.
  • Fever.
  • Body aches.
  • Loss of taste and smell.

Omicron COVID-19 symptoms

So far, the signs of omicron tend to be similar to previous COVID-19 strains and they might include mild cold-like symptoms. But there are some slight differences emerging.

People aren’t reporting a loss of taste or smell as much with omicron as they were with previous variants, Torres said. “But people are reporting night sweats, which is a very strange symptom that they say they’re having.”

  • Cough.
  • Fatigue.
  • Runny nose and congestion.
  • Night sweats.
  • Less likely to have a loss of taste or smell.

When should you get tested?

“One of the biggest things is you want to avoid self-diagnosing. That means if you’re displaying any symptoms, you want to go ahead and get tested,” Torres said. And, again, you should assume you have COVID-19 until your test says otherwise.

When you get tested, depending on your symptoms and what your COVID-19 test results are, you might also get tested for the flu or strep throat.

Best cold, flu and COVID-19 home remedies

The best home treatments for any of these illnesses depend on the exact symptoms you’re experiencing. Torres shared some advice about over-the-products that can help, but always check with your health care provider first.

  • Fever and body aches: Use pain- and fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
  • Congestion: For a stuffy nose, use an over-the-counter decongestant like guaifenesin (Mucinex).
  • Fatigue: Make sure you stay hydrated, get enough electrolytes and rest up. “Sleep is one of your biggest aids you can use right now that lets your body recuperate and regenerate itself so it can protect you and it keeps your immune system strong,” Torres said. 
  • Difficulty breathing: If you experience any difficulty breathing or shortness of breath or if your symptoms get worse rather than improving, you should speak with a doctor, Torres said.

Is it too late to get vaccinated?

When it comes to COVID-19 and the flu, know that it’s not too late to be vaccinated for either — or both at the same time.

Both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines take a few weeks to build up an immune response and provide the most protection. So if you haven’t gotten those vaccines yet, getting them now is the best way to be protected in the future.